How to Do High Road Infrastructure: 10 Lessons from L.A.

In honor Infrastructure Week, guest blogger Dena Belzer, CEO of Strategic Economics reports out on her conversation with Cris Liban of LA Metro, on lessons learned for planning, designing, building and operating High Road infrastructure.

Author's note: In honor of Infrastructure Week, I have invited Dena Belzer, president of Strategic Economics, to author a guest post on High Road Infrastructure in action based on her conversation with Cris B. Liban, Executive Officer for Environmental Compliance and Sustainability at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro).

High Road Infrastructure is a term for projects that are designed, built and operated to deliver social, environmental, and climate benefits in addition to core service delivery. These benefits may include reduced carbon emissions, increased resource efficiency, greater equity within and between communities, cleaner air and water, quality jobs, improved health, and the ability to withstand and recover from stresses caused by severe a changing climate.

Liban’s work shows how the principles of High Road Infrastructure can be implemented in a major metropolitan area.

NRDC staff, in conjunction with a cross-disciplinary research team including Dena Belzer, has been investigating this question for some time. In 2016 our team released our initial issue paper, Taking the High Road to More and Better Infrastructure in the United States.

We recently released a second paper, High Road Infrastructure Handbook: 10 Steps for Cities Seeking to Accelerate Implementation of More and Better Infrastructure to provide practical guidance on how to implement a High Road program. Dena’s 10 steps relate to the steps outlined in the paper.

There are many examples of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

Consider the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, one of four iconic bridges spanning San Francisco Bay. In February, it began shedding large concrete chunks on unsuspecting drivers. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, but the California State Department of Transportation reported that the bridge will need $900 million just for ongoing maintenance and should be replaced within the next two decades.

The question for the Bay Area and so many other communities across America is where will the money come from, and how can it be put to its best use—not just for rebuilding what’s there but to move the country into a sustainable future to meet its economic, social equity, and environmental goals.

After working with NRDC and a cross-disciplinary research team on the High Road Infrastructure concept for five years, I think I can relay some answers, and I’m going to do that through an example—Los Angeles.

Cris B. Liban is the Executive Officer for Environmental Compliance and Sustainability at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro). He is a licensed civil engineer in California and has a doctorate from UCLA in environmental science and engineering. His work and his thinking illustrate the ways any municipal entity responsible for infrastructure project delivery can start moving onto the High Road.

After speaking with Cris, I translated his thoughts into 10 lessons for implementing High Road work.

Step 1: Don’t waste a crisis; use the opportunity align priorities

Getting agencies on board with a High Road approach can be difficult but specific problems or crises can be effective rallying points to bring policy makers together. Cris found this out when construction workers building a LA Metro project were unexpectedly exposed to unhealthy levels of arsenic due to former railroad operations. There was no consensus in the regulatory and contractor community about how to address this issue, but everyone could agree on the desired High Road outcome: reducing the health risks for workers without compromising cost and schedule impacts. This focus on outcomes led to strong solutions including doing less soil excavation and relying on drought-tolerant and California native plants to cover berms.

Step 2: Setting priorities for project delivery makes a difference

In 2007, the Federal Transit Administration continued an initial effort four years earlier by offering transit agencies training to operationalize and adopt environmental policy using an Environmental Systems Management (EMS) approach. LA Metro was selected to receive the EMS training the following year, and in 2009, the agency adopted its policy providing guidance on how the agency will carry out its ongoing activities in ways that continually improve environmental quality in its service area. Cris found that this policy provided important vision and allowed him to start experimenting with multiple ways to deliver more sustainable projects. Because he had the board’s policy commitment, Cris was able to eventually identify ways to deliver projects that were more sustainable without driving up costs.

Step 3: Funding is Important, but so are cost savings

Once Cris hit his stride with the EMS systems, he began saving money for LA Metro. Having the EMS training helped refocus his entire administrative team, and its members were eventually able to deliver over $2 million in initial cost savings. Cris then went back to his board and asked it to start investing in other projects within LA Metro that would also help save money and improve environmental quality. Staff members were asked to submit ideas and many innovations have resulted, including a delivery of sealed coolant recovery systems in 11 bus divisions that cost around $50,000 but saved the agency approximately $1 million in three years.

Step 4: Working together helps identify relevant project delivery strategies

While Cris is committed to making LA Metro more sustainable, he also knows that his whole industry needs to change its mindset. Both the American Society of Civil Engineers and various organizations of designers and contractors have also recognized the need to continually improve the state of practice in their professions. These groups have come together to say, “we can do better,” and are now drafting an international standard and a manual of practice for sustainable infrastructure project delivery.

Step 5: Using standards in procurement is iterative

Working with contractors through the procurement process can be challenging, especially since engineers are concerned about their ongoing liability for project designs. But Cris has found that as LA Metro learns more about what works, and what doesn’t, with respect to sustainable project delivery, he can start to build more standards into his construction specification, knowing that these will work for potential contractors because they can achieve their financial goals and deliver better projects. In June 2019, Cris is going to present to his Board a Sustainable Acquisitions Program for adoption that will provide a capstone to current LA Metro best practices that incorporate sustainability principles in all of their projects.

Step 6: Think about investors, but invest in your people

Cris’ group also leads LA Metro’s efforts to grow a “green workforce.” Anyone in the entire 11,000-person organization can choose to take one of several courses related to the environment and sustainability. With a goal to train up to 1,500 people in five years, approximately 800 people from administrative staff to executives have been trained and more than half of this number have certified in at least one of these certification programs. And, while these programs are voluntary, the trainings do make a difference in the way people do their jobs. Now LA Metro is starting to offer similar training for its contractors, and certified contractors know LA Metro’s sustainability vision better when they submit bids or proposals.

Step 7: Broaden your focus by combining projects

LA Metro is updating its Climate Action and Adaptation Plan; and will seek Board approval to implement in July 2019. As part of this process, the agency also ran resiliency focus groups relating to resiliency related topics. A broad spectrum of LA Metro employees were included in these groups, not just the usual suspects. One unexpected outcome was that groups like Emergency Management staff within LA Metro also became interested in resiliency, and now see this as part of their mission.

Step 8: Use outside resources to inform your technical work

Cris is a busy guy with a big job, but he is also very active with various professional organizations. These affiliations have provided critical opportunities for Cris to share his expertise and learn from others. As a result, LA Metro is getting a national and international reputation as a leader in sustainability and resiliency. Cris is chair of the American Society of Civil Engineer’s National Committee on Sustainability, he sits on the Working Group that produced Paying It Forward: The Path Toward Climate-Safe Infrastructure in California, produced by the California Natural Resources Agency, and he addressed the need for more and better infrastructure with the Union for Concerned Scientists and as a Board Member of the Zofnass Program on Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard University.

Step 9: New approaches speak to new investors

LA Metro is now reaping the benefits of its sustained efforts around sustainability. With Cris’ leadership, the agency has already issued about $850 million in green bonds for low carbon transport. Cris’ team has also recently generated around $100M in revenue from monetizable environmental benefits that they have invested in sustainable infrastructure projects. Now, LA Metro is also contemplating on the pursuit of resiliency bonds, impact bonds, and other new funding and financing mechanisms geared to sustainable activities as these new mission-driven investment vehicles come to market.

Step 10: Close the deal and do look back

Finally, one of the best things I learned from talking about taking the High Road with Cris Liban is the importance of always looking at why the things we’re currently doing aren’t working. That way we can understand how we’ve “failed,” but then use what we’ve learned to do keep improving. Cris says that we can only learn and become stronger from being “intrepid.” So, here’s to being intrepid and building on our mistakes on behalf of the country’s many infrastructure challenges.

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